"Jen!" The word came out in a terse gust of air, my breath and my feet caught short as I stopped dead in my tracks. She pulled back too, but took a second to identify the cause of my concern. After that one word burst, my voice failed me and I could only stand frozen. Steps below the trail, belly deep in a lazy section of river, stood a black bear fishing for salmon. He didn't look up at first, and we backed slowly away, our eyes glued to the big beast. But, nature nerds that the two of us are, we didn't get too far away before our cameras came out, trained on the black hulk wading through the current. After a few moments of river recon, the bear abruptly climbed up the bank and started toward us on the trail.
Backing up a little...a couple hours earlier we had been bushwhacking through wet young hemlocks and brush just off the highway some ways north of town, getting soaked and hunting for chanterelles. The thick young evergreens hid even our feet as we navigated the hillside, but when we stopped and tucked below the branches, golden 'shrooms revealed themselves through the mossy duff. We were soaked as we emerged again onto the overgrown logging road, but each of the five of us carried a bag full of forest treasure ready for dinner. I eyed my extra prize - a giant, moss-covered vertebra from an elk, after discovering its skeleton remains on the forest floor - likely discarded some time ago after a hunter took the meat and head. We returned to town satisfied, and after dropping off the other women I asked my friend (she who takes me to see many wild beasts) if she was up for a walk along a favoured salmon river. Gamely, we drove to the trailhead. After surveying the crowd of cars in the parking lot, she deemed it unlikely we'd see any bears today, and we set to walking through the carpet of maple leaves along the water's edge. But that confident assertion proved untrue...
Boots feeling slick in the mud, we backed up again until we rounded a bend in the trail, hidden from view. After a breathless pause, a curious black face poked around the next bend. He didn't seem aggressive, but he showed no fear either, and we tucked back out of view and moved back again to the next bend. We wished out loud that he would return to the river and we might be able to sneak past, feeling our walk was being cut unduly short otherwise. We could have tried to scare him off, but didn't want to disturb him if we didn't have to. Jen had already stopped an off-leash pup in its tracks and directed it and its owner back in the opposite direction, but we were a bit more stubborn. Again the bear appeared around the corner we had just left, watching us, coming along steadily. We retreated one more time. All was quiet but for the gurgles of the river. I saw a black shape appear around the bend, but just as quickly it tucked down into the brush along the river's edge. We waited. Then Jen started forward with a stick in hand, a frail looking thing not more than a couple feet long, less than an inch in diameter. I wasn't sure what she planned to do, exactly, with that sad little weapon, but I quickly followed behind.
But that massive black bear had disappeared, vanished into the dwindling leaves along the river's edge and nowhere to be seen. We continued on up the trail, ears perked to any sound, hearts still pumping with adrenaline. Nothing but the river's rushing journey, although the signs of recent bear activity (*ahem*) were frequent on the path.
On the way back down, we peered out from a little overlook above the river. A rustle in the bushes on the opposite shore alerted us to another beast clambering along. He emerged, unconcerned with us but in tune with every splash of the active salmon swimming upstream. We felt much more relaxed as he ambled along, a deep section of water separating us this time. We spoke in whispers as he tested the water, gnawed on a rotten fish found on the river bed. He continued on up the shore and we continued on our journey back to the truck, wide eyed and invigorated by our close brush with the wild out in the crisp October air.